Category Archives: Grumpy Old Man Does Retail

Rise of the Doc-In-A-Box

This has nothing whatever to do with the rise of so-called Obamacare, as the condition was present before O-care and persists still.

Maybe this isn’t the case in your locale, but I can tell you that in and around the urban amoeba known as Houston, simply being able to obtain an appointment with a medical doctor requires herculean effort if not divine intervention.

We adore our family physician, and a couple of years ago when our kids’ pediatrician retired, we were pleased that she was willing to bring them in as regular patients.

It hasn’t gone so well since then. Apparently her practice has taken on several hundred new patients besides our kids. It’s become impossible to find an open spot for an appointment for the entire coming week. If it’s a near-emergency (as opposed to an emergency-room emergency), the appointment person relays a message to our doctor’s assistant-nurse, who is supposed to call back to let us know if we can squeeze into a slot. But the nurse never calls until the next day.

That’s pretty unacceptable, and not the way things used to be a few years ago. As a result, we’ve been forced on several occasions to make use of the doc-in-a-box CVS keeps on staff at one of their stores a few miles away. The inability to be able to get in to see our regular doctor caused me to go to Walgreens to get flu shots for myself and my kids last year, with horrible results.

On those occasions when a family member is able to actually book an appointment with our family doctor, that person has to wait what I consider an outlandish length of time – usually two hours or more beyond the time the appointment was made.

Thus, even though we adore our family doctor, we are on the lookout for someone else, for the reasons listed above. Unfortunately, so far no one locally whose opinion I trust has a better family doctor situation than we do.

In other words, apparently the entire Houston area is plagued by such a lack of qualified primary care physicians that you can’t get in to see one without sacrificing pretty much half of a work day, or more, and having to schedule that sacrifice 10 days in advance.

So increasingly, we’re all at the mercy of the anonymous dox in boxes. And that’s just those of us who possess actual medical insurance.

Is this the way it works where you live?

When I gaze into my crystal ball, I think I see the rise of the neighborhood healer.

Also posted in Health Care

Take This Cart And Shove It…

…I ain’t shopping here no more.

Yes, the Grumpy Old Man was out in full force at the aging, dirty Wal-Mart just down from the Richmond post office. I’d pushed my cart through the grocery portion of the store as usual and, as usual, found nothing worth buying in the meat section, mediocre but acceptable berries in produce, and most everything else I wanted on my list.

The only reason I went in the first place is because I was out of dog food, and my big dog requires a large bag of a specific brand. And Wal-Mart has that one particular item $3 to $5 cheaper than I can find elsewhere. So I got the dog food. But I skipped buying 2% milk, as it was priced at $3.35 – almost 60 cents more expensive than Kroger’s, and almost twice the price I’d just seen at a relatively new Aldi’s grocery store just down the street.

So there I was in line with about $100 of food in my cart, thinking about Aldi’s and wondering why the line was so long and not moving. Aldi’s brings with it a new retail concept as far as this area is concerned – no-frills, low-selection, but truly low prices. You have to pay a quarter to unlock a shopping cart. To get your quarter back, you have to put the cart back in line and re-lock it. You have to bag your own stuff, and either pay for your own bags or bring some from home with you.

But their milk and eggs and olive oil and bottled spring water are half what Wal-Mart charges. And I was going to have to go there anyway, because I refuse to pay $3.35 for a gallon of milk.

The Wal-Mart line still wasn’t moving. Looking around, I noticed that out of about 30 check-out lines, they only had three open, and all three were jammed. The check-out supervisor came walking along in front of the registers, and for a second I thought I might be in luck. At Kroger’s, if a manager notices a long check-out line, or even a medium line, he or she motions with a finger, and opens up a register, even if the manager personally has to check the shopper out.

At Wal-Mart, the supervisor pretended not to notice. I was behind four elderly shoppers, all loaded down with large amounts of goods, and all armed with dozens of coupons. The cashier was arguing with one of them over an expired coupon. Just then, three Wal-Mart management types with white shirts and store badges walked into the check-out area from an office area, taking in the scene.

I guess the two to three dozen shoppers lined up with their arms crossed looked like money in the bank to the managers, and damned if they were going to pull another employee off of shelf-stocking duty to shorten customers’ waits.

This struck me as an appropriate time to send a message, however subtle, to the small-head Wal-Mart managers. So I stepped out of line and walked out of the store, abandoning my cart full of groceries. I don’t really care whether or not management realizes it has pushed its customers too far. Unless it’s an absolute emergency, I don’t intend to patronize that store again.

So I had to shop all over again at Aldi’s, and I couldn’t get everything just as I wanted, because Aldi doesn’t offer many brands. But the store was clean, and the prices for the food basics are the lowest in town. And even though I had to make yet another stop to find my particular size and brand of dog food, at a higher prices than I wanted to pay, I still felt pretty good, when I got home later, about finally having abandoned ship on that crap-ass Wal-Mart store.

New Appliances For Old Dummies

This story should illustrate just how much stupid has leaked into the big-box major appliance retail sector (hint: the answer is “a lot.”)

I still can’t believe it myself, and it happened to me.

Things kicked off when our 10-year-old dishwasher, which had gotten worse and worse over the past few months, finally died completely. It was not a great time financially for us to have to make a major appliance purchase, however, after trying to do them by hand for a couple of days (I am, among other things, the Chief Dishwasher) I concluded that if we didn’t buy a new one I would have to spend two-thirds of each day with my hands in the sink.

So I started researching dishwashers, and found that most of the major brands’ (Whirlpool, GE, Maytag, Kenmore, Hotpoint) machines under $500 got a lot of bad consumer reviews and low marks from consumer research organizations. I concluded that if I were going to have to spend more than $500 on a dishwasher, I might as well buy a Bosch, because that brand (not well-known to me) got consistently much higher marks from the researchers, and the reviewers.

So it turns out that even though I live on the edge of the Houston metro area – the third-largest in the country – essentially the only stores that would sell me a new Bosch dishwasher are Lowes, Best Buy, Sears and possibly Conn’s. I immediately rejected the idea of shopping at Conn’s since that outfit was actually sued by Greg Abbott and the state of Texas for deceptive trade practices, and Abbott almost never sues any business on behalf of the consuming public. Home Depot, which sells its share of appliances, doesn’t carry Bosch.

So that left Lowe’s, Best Buy and Sears. I picked the Bosch model I wanted – a highly rated machine with an advertised retail cost of about $640. None of the three stores had any in stock, at any store in the entire Houston area. I would have to order one and then have it delivered to me after the store contacted the manufacturer to get one. None of the three retailers had a significantly lower price on the model I wanted, so it should have just been a matter of who could deliver it cheaper and quicker.

But I couldn’t even obtain that information from Sears. They promised to get an answer to my questions and call me back. But it turns out they couldn’t be bothered for something so measly as a $640 purchase. So I called them back – and found that they were unable or unwilling to even give me an estimated date when they might obtain my dishwasher from Bosch and then deliver it to me. Fuck them, I thought, and that narrowed my choice to either Lowe’s or Best Buy.

Both of the remaining retailers were willing to deliver my dishwasher for free. The catch was that neither expected to be able to have it available in less than two weeks. I thought about the prospect of spending two-thirds of the waking time over the next two weeks washing dishes by hand, and I didn’t like it. It was at this point that I poured through the search engines looking for other large appliance stores in Houston that carried Bosch. I was shocked to learn how few existed, just a handful, and of those, their prices were significantly higher than my pals at Best Buy or Lowes.

I decided to tough it out and hand-wash the dishes until I could get the machine I wanted. I called up Lowes and began setting up the transaction. Then I asked two questions: Will your guys take the old dishwasher away and install the new one? Oops. Yes, their guys would haul off the broken dishwasher, but installing the new one would cost $135 – more than 20% of the total cost of the machine in the first place. Best Buy would haul off the old machine, but if I wanted them to install the new one when they delivered it, I couldn’t order it over the phone – I had to drive out to one of their stores and set the whole multi-level transaction up in person, in what sounded like a half-day event. Oh, plus they wanted $140 for installation.

What the fuck? I asked myself. It wasn’t good enough that I was standing there holding out $640 and begging someone to take it from me. No, I had to agree to allow myself to be tortured first, and then fork over another $135 or more as kind of a bribe to seal the bargain.

This seemed insane to me. Somewhat desperate at this point, I turned to the Craig’s List online classified ads, and within 15 seconds found someone the next town over with a lightly used $700 Bosch dishwasher he was offering up at $400. We talked on the phone. He and his wife really liked their dishwasher, but had decided they wanted all new matching kitchen appliances. He gave me his address and I drove over to look at it 20 minutes later.

Granted, you have to watch yourself when dealing on Craig’s List. The world contains charlatans and cheats. So you have to ask questions, size up your seller and then be willing to take a chance. I felt pretty good about this guy. He hadn’t thought about the fact that he wouldn’t be able to prove the dishwasher worked once he uninstalled it. So he tried to hook it up in his garage using a modified extension cord and a garden hose, but was unable to find a way to couple the hose to the dishwasher. He had been a city fireman for more than 25 years. He had a very nicely kept-up house, and I knew where he lived. He even offered to deliver the dishwasher to my house for free. And he was willing to take a chance on me, too, because if I bought his dishwasher, I would be paying by check – not cash.

As for the dishwasher, he said they never used it much, and it looked new. He showed me how easily he’d been able to install it.

Bottom line, I bought it. Then I took it home and installed it in less than an hour. So far it has proved to be the best dishwasher we have ever owned, by far.

By using Craig’s List instead of a big-box retailer, I saved myself $375 and was able to bring home my nearly new dishwasher the same day I paid for it instead of having to wait two or three weeks.

How do these retailers stay in business? If I were Bosch, I would not want any of them as partners. If I were Bosch, I would hire a manager, a sales rep and a couple of crews for every major market, and I would begin selling online direct to the public. My crews would deliver and install the company machines for “free” (we would price the dishwashers high enough to cover the cost of our labor). And I would not have to share profits with the Three Stooges – Sears, Lowes and Best Buy.

Grumpy Old Man out.

Meat Market Sticker Shock

The Grumpy Old Man went grocery shopping at the HEB store yesterday and became even grumpier. Not because of any of the usual incompetence or hijinks grocers pull – but because of the prices.

Steelhead trout, a favorite of mine, had gone from $8 a week ago to $10 a pound (yeah, in actuality the listed prices were $7.99 and 9.99, but I’m not playing that game). They still had fresh gulf shrimp, but the price had gone from $12 to $15 a pound. Chuck roast of any kind (which I use to grind hamburger) was more than $5.50 a pound – and more than sirloin steak, which makes no sense to me. Baby-back pork ribs were so high I just remember making some kind of woshing sound with my mouth as I passed them by.

It wasn’t my imagination; the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported recently that the so-called food-at-home price index rose more in the first two months of 2014 than during the entire year of 2013. And I know from the cattle farmers who live around our little farm that the last couple of drought years caused some of them to reduce the size of their herds. So there are fewer cattle and they’re more expensive to raise.

Then you can add in the fairly major increase in gasoline prices over the past few weeks, not helped at all by the recent Houston Ship Channel snafu in which a cargo ship collided with a barge packed full of oil, spilling 160,000 gallons or so into Galveston Bay and shutting down traffic from, among other things, refineries that supply gasoline to much of the rest of the country.

The result of these factors is that most people effectively got a pay cut over the past month or so. This, of course, makes the Grumpy Old Man grumpier still. Yet it’s not surprising.

It reminds me how fragile the U.S. food distribution system is. The main factor allowing Americans to obtain such a variety of food at what has been remarkably low prices is what used to be remarkably low fuel prices. As gas here closes in on $3.50 a gallon, it seems obvious to me that at some point HEB and Kroger and the rest will stop offering items such as Chilean Sea Bass or shrimp from Vietnam, because the increased cost of fuel surely must at some point make them unaffordable to the masses.

The trend might represent good news for local food providers – but not for the typical consumer. Local produce from the farmers’ markets and pasture-raised beef and pork and chicken have been here all along (and here’s a list if you’re interested). I am happy to extol the healthy virtues and benefits of food obtained right from the grower/producer. But one of those benefits is not price.

The unfortunate truth is that most people base their budgets on the amount they must spend buying food from the grocery stores. If rising fuel costs cause grocery store prices to rise to the level of locally produced food, that means average consumers will be forced to either eat less or devote significantly more of their income to food. The good news is that they may then be able to spend that money on home-grown produce, eggs and meat that are a lot healthier than what they’ve been eating.

Also posted in Food